Kurdish music overcame harsh oppression
Despite being completely banned and brutally suppressed by Turkish, Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi regimes for decades, Kurdish music has survived and thrived.
In the past, Kurdish musicians were arrested for their Kurdish songs and even killed by those regimes. Those regimes banned everything related to Kurdish music and songs.
“Saddam’s regime banned all kinds of books on Kurdish music,” said Abdullah Jamal, a Kurdish music expert. “In the 1980s, when I was doing my masters in music, I had no sources, no books about Kurdish music. And if you had a book about it, you would have been arrested, or worse, killed.”
Kurdish music is distinct from Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Armenian music. It is unique in its vocals and rhythms.
Kurdish musical instruments include tanbur, saz, qernete, duduk, kaval, shimshal (long flute), zurna (oboe), drum, and daf.
Each village, each town, each region in Kurdistan has its unique music. Siya Chamana, for instance, belongs only to the Hawraman region, where each village has its own different version. Hayran is another example that is a mark of Erbil city and its surroundings. Hayran is about mountains, romance, social and cultural stories, and anecdotes.
Kurdish folklore music has three genres: Chirokbej (storytellers), dengbej (bards), and stranbej (popular singers).
Kurdish music has different songs and styles for each profession and season. Payizok, for instance, is about the return to the summer pastures. There are different songs for different chores in the village. For example, these include songs about drwena (harvesting corps), sawarkutan (grinding burgul), qurshelan (clay works), and many more.
There are also hundreds of different types of Kurdish dance. For each type, there is a specific song. Chamary and helparke, for instance, have their own songs.
Kurdish music is rich with scales (meqams). Khawkar, hore, lawk, hayran, lawje, khurshidi, ay ay, bait, and many more.
“Each meqam expresses a part of the Kurdish suffering,” said Mohammed Baqi, a Kurdish music historian. “Ay ay in Garmiyan area is for disappointment and sad times of separation. Lawk is for the heroes who did not return in the fights.”
And each meqam belongs to some specific regions. Bait, for instance, belongs to the Mukryan area, Chamary to Kirmansha, hayran to Erbil, hora to Sharazoor, and so on.
Baqi explains that the source of Kurdish music is agricultural and religious practices.
Due to political reasons, not much has been documented about Kurdish music. However, there have been some works protecting the culture.
Komitas, an Armenian priest and composer, collected 12 Kurdish melodies, amongst the earliest ones, and published them in 1903 in a book titled “Chansones Kurdes” (The Kurdish songs).
Baqi published his detailed book about the history of Kurdish music in 2018.
Jean During, a French ethnomusicologist, has collected and studied Kurdish music as part of his journeys to Iran, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan. One of his notable books is about a famous Kurdish musician Ustad Nour Ali Ilahi (1897-1974), whose music is unique.
Kurdish music flourished when pressure from the international community reduced censorship. Many Kurdish music groups emerged and that developed the culture. The Kamkars (Kamkaran) is one such example.
“Kamkaran brought the Kurdish music to the world stage on a different level, a professional level,” noted Jamal. “They did not only maintain our music, but also made it better.”
The Kamkars is a Kurdish musical family group consisting of seven brothers and one sister. They perform worldwide. Its most notable performance was in the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
“Music for the Kurdish people was part of a bigger revolution,” Baqi said. “Part of the freedom we have now is because of our music, so powerful and so amazing.”